Election focus: Ynys Mon

Ynys Mon is tucked away on the fringes of the general election. Its position on the periphery is what makes the campaign developing there so compelling.

By Alex Stevenson

The Isle of Anglesey is a seat which has been held by four different parties since the Second World War. Yet its constituents tend to back incumbents to the hilt – until they unexpectedly pull the rug from under them. That happened to Plaid Cymru’s candidate in 2001, Eilian Williams, who unexpectedly lost to Labour’s Albert Owen.

All its candidates seem to have a sense of the seat’s uniqueness. The Conservatives’ Anthony Ridge-Newman describes it as being “extremely independent”; party politics plays a part, “but they tend to vote for the candidate they like”. Independent Peter Rogers says constituents have huge loyalty to incumbents: “they either go to jail or they die!” Plaid Cymru’s Dylan Rees is instinctively local, pressing the importance of grassroots politics, while Labour’s Albert Owen – the current MP – talks of personally knowing many of his rivals from other parties. “That is the beauty of Anglesey,” he says.

This is something of an electoral oddity. Perhaps it might have been a three-way marginal if it were not for the presence of Rogers, an independent former Tory who pushed the Conservatives into fourth in the 2005 vote. He is a former Assembly member who got the bug for politics after championing farmers’ voices across the constituency. Now he uses his role as a councillor “who stands on his own” to maintain a high profile. “I’m in all the skirmishes that go on in the council,” Rogers says. “I believe if I got elected even with a hung parliament I’ve got a very important part to play… We’ve got to change the mould of what’s going on here.”

At present Rogers’ participation in the election is not 100% guaranteed. Recent heart surgery means he is awaiting doctors’ advice on whether or not he should put himself through the strain of a full-on general election campaign. The question-mark over his participation leaves many pundits pondering whether, without him, the seat might return to that three-way marginal status. It’s clearly Ridge-Newman is the main loser from his parochial electoral presence.

The Conservative candidate, who has been handed the tough challenge of fighting the seat as an outsider (no point even pretending he’s a local given his home counties accent), argues his party’s strong track record on encouraging entrepreneurship is what’s required to help Ynys Mon get through the tough economic climate. And he has another argument up his sleeve, too. “If we get a Conservative majority at the next election then Anglesey is going to be very well placed if they’ve got a Conservative MP,” he suggests. “Plaid have very little power, in Westminster. And Labour’s voice whatever happens is going to be reduced.”

Given the 2005 result, however, which saw the Tories take just 11% of the vote behind Rogers’ 15%, it appears this pair are unlikely to challenge for that Westminster seat. Rogers’ impact may ultimately be more decisive because of the fewer votes he will take off Plaid’s candidate, Dylan Rees. His party fell just over 1,000 votes short of Labour in 2005, despite Owen managing to be one of the few Labour MPs across Britain who increased his majority. After three years of campaigning Rees is upbeat.

“Personally I never like boasting, saying we’re going to win,” he says, the picture of modesty. “But I think we have an excellent chance.”

Plaid’s strength in Ynys Mon is its grassroots grounding; a solid core of activists who have been talking to voters in the seat even when they’re not died-in-the-wool nationalists. The economy, and Iraq and Afghanistan, have led to many people feeling let down by the government. Seven Post Offices have closed, although Owen points out a new one is opening this weekend. Rees still calls this a “death knell for the community” and believes voters have noticed, however.

“They’ve lost faith with Labour, they don’t trust the Tories,” he says. “They like the voice they’re hearing from Plaid Cymru. We’ve grown up as a party. A lot of people are saying ‘we want to give Plaid a chance’.”

The Wyn Jones factor, with Plaid’s leader representing Anglesey in the Welsh Assembly, is playing a key role in shaping people’s perceptions. Since 2007 he has been deputy first minister working in coalition with Labour. Now he is also responsible for economic development. Labour’s Owen is scornful of his contribution, claiming he is actually “putting us at a disadvantage” because he’s not allowed to intervene in ministerial terms to help his own constituency. But Plaid is determined to associate Rees closely with Wyn Jones, driving home the idea that it doesn’t help to have an MP and an AM from different parties. “What we’re saying is if we could have a Plaid MP… you’ve got a team who can work together for the good of the people of Anglesey,” Rees claims.

At the heart of the issues dominating the campaign on Anglesey, as elsewhere in the country, is the economy. The arguments seem especially tense here, though. Listening to the opposition candidates fosters the impression that Ynys Mon is deep in the mire, stagnating under the weight of a recession which has brought job losses and misery.

The facts don’t look good: it’s the poorest county in the UK and, as Ridge-Newman explains, “very little funding in investment comes to Anglesey”. Nearly a quarter of those who are working age are economically active, excluding students. It’s high in terms of unemployment and jobseekers’ allowance claimants: over 1,000 jobs have been lost in the last 12 months, in a development Rees describes as “devastating”.

Owen, unsurprisingly, is keener on accentuating the positive. He’s cynical about Plaid’s attempt to pin the economic woes on Labour, when Wyn Jones is the one in charge of the country’s economy, and instead puts the emphasis on the improvements which have been made under Labour. Whereas many other military bases have been closing across the UK, RAF Valley has received “millions of pounds of investment”. Yes, there have been job losses; but the 1,700 unemployed in the recession compares well with the 4,000-plus who were out of work during the Tory recession of 1992. “The Conservative candidate doesn’t remember what it was like in the 80s.”

The grievances of those who are out of work, inevitably, will play a big part. The decision to close Anglesey Aluminium, for example, was a major blow which cost 400 jobs. “Labour have dithered,” Ridge-Newman says. Owen hints that the commercial choice to shut the plant down was a mistaken one, given the subsequent fall in electricity prices and increase in aluminium prices. “We came up with a package to save them, worth £48 million, but they turned it down,” he shrugs. “It’s Conservative hypocrisy – they don’t believe in subsiding business.” It’s not clear whether voters will buy that argument, but Owen seems upbeat. “I don’t think I’m going to take as big a hit on that as my opponents think. But I’m not taking anything for granted.”

The same goes for the major nuclear power station on the island at Wylfa, which is nearing the end of its life. Labour’s attackers claim concerns about jobs at the plant are under risk, although as Owen points out there will remain people on site for up to 20 years. Ridge-Newman says there will be a “huge jobs void” between its demise and the tentative moves towards another nuclear power plant.

It takes about ten years to bring one online, Owen says, with a hint of frustration showing in his voice. The Conservatives failed to advance the case for a new station during their time in power, he argues. It only came back on the agenda when Owen was elected in 2001. “It’s taken a long time,” he says – but the claim is there that he has been on the case since being elected.

Owen’s wider answer to being confronted by so much acrimony about the miserable state of the economy is a sweeping optimism which reflects his ambitions for the seat. A dual carriageway and new airport have been completed, improving vital links with the mainland. Faster trains allow access to London. Crime is down, thanks to more investment in policing. And then there’s Owen’s vision of an ‘energy island’, generating work and prosperity through the use of nuclear, windmills and marine turbines, is making real progress.

None of the other candidates are quite so determined to back all three energy sources, because, Owen claims, politics gets in the way. “The nationalists are against nuclear power, so they’re uncomfortable,” he says; the Conservatives only back nuclear energy as a “last resort”. But Labour offers a “huge transformation” worth “billions of pounds”. A new reactor would bring in an estimated £2 billion to the local economy. “I’m very confident we’re going into a very positive period,” Owen says.

He does not have a monopoly on ambition, though. Plaid’s Rees is passionate about the need to develop a factory on Anglesey to build the wind turbines, not just have the wind farms there by themselves. He says the Holyhead port has “massive potential” for development and backs a new nuclear power station, despite what Owen says. As well as major capital projects, he cites Wyn Jones’ new venture capital fund to help more small- and medium-sized businesses make progress; his ideas for ‘Copper Kingdom’ and a red squirrel visitor centre to attract tourists; and the “exciting” recent geopark status granted by the EU. “The Westminster government concentrated on the city at the expense of rural communities. We have suffered. We need to reverse that process,” he argues.

The Plaid threat seems to pose real danger for Labour, whose MP – despite his hard-working incumbency – is relying on voters to ignore the present. Instead Owen wants them to bear in mind both the Tory past and his vision of the future. Rees has a clear response: “We’ve had representation of Westminster’s voice in Wales for too long. We want Wales’ voice in Westminster.” There’s just two months to go until the pair find out which argument has succeeded.